When viewing these five icons together, they appear almost like a glyph telling an urban legend. Perhaps that is what Keith Haring meant to portray in his final work of art before his untimely passing because of AIDS in 1990 prior to finalizing the piece, leaving the executor of his estate, Julia Gruen, to sign and date the works in lieu of the artist himself. Haring’s Icons is a series of five screenprints with embossing depicting seemingly unrelated characters reflecting on issues related to life, death, greed, and innocence. While the images each tell their own story individually, together they reflect on the entirety of the human experience.
Many of these icons have shown up time and time again throughout Haring’s work and have become emblematic of the artist after his death. The first image we see here is the barking dog; while the artist has claimed no particular meaning behind this image it has developed its own connotation throughout its lifetime. In more heartening readings, it has been taken as a call to action, however, others read it as a reflection on authoritarianism and abuse of power. Perhaps it is meant as a call to action; to oppose these authoritarian impulses that have taken hold around the world. The “radiant” baby, on the other hand, has been directly addressed by Haring as referring to youthful innocence, purity and potential. The image depicts a baby crawling with lines emanating from them. The baby feels different than many babies depicted in art; rather than being helpless, this baby feels agile and invites you into its youthful radiance. Now if we turn to the “Smiley” face, Haring expresses a direct opposite human impulse: greed. While Haring has commented that this figure does not have any particular meaning, its green face and bulging eyes have often been associated with excess and greed. This icon has appeared in other Haring pieces and has alternatively been viewed as an expression of the cosmic energy in the world. Paired with the other icons, it is easy to read into its association with the human experience. The final two icons have symbolic references to religion. Haring has often used religious motifs to comment on the world through a non-religious lens throughout his work. The “winged” man appears with an “x” on his chest, potentially representing a cross and referring to death. This stands in contrast to the angel to its right, which represents the presence of spiritual beings guarding over human life, religiously affiliated or not.
When the five icons are viewed as a whole, Haring appears to be commenting on the complexities of human life, the good and the bad. Human impulses are perplexing and can range from purity to power, from chaos to order, and from action to passivity. This being Haring’s final work of art before his death adds to the significance of the icons and feels almost like a farewell. Embracing the messiness of the human experience through these vibrant and inviting images encapsulates what much of Haring’s work is about. His dedication to creating democratic and public art for the community is at the heart of his iconography.